photo: Eddy van Wessel


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Iraqi tales to be continued

The body guards of the Iraqi minister of  Finance have been picked up on terrorism charges. Deja vu? Yes, almost. The difference is that a year ago this happened to a deputy president who has since been given a death sentence himself and has fled the country.

Never a dull moment in Iraq. This week was a particularly interesting one, and one that is not really improving the popularity of Iraqi prime minister Al Maliki with most of his people.Sometimes it is difficult to understand the sequence and meaning of happenings in Iraq. Especially as so much of it is in some way linked, as is the case this week.

Let me start on Monday. Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk fire on Iraqi reconnaissance planes. In other words, Kurdish military, not part of the Iraqi army as Baghdad refuses to pay for for these soldiers, shoot at planes that the Baghdad has sent to see what they are up to. The Peshmerga's were sent to the so-called disputed areas around Kirkuk that are claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad, in reaction to the Dija (Tigris) Operation to guard those areas.

Kurdish politicians have called this operation to send Iraqi troops to the disputed areas 'against the constitution', because in the Iraqi constitution the status of these areas was undecided and to be decided on by census and referendum. The Kurds have since created a status quo in which they dominate the administrative and security  powers in most of the areas.

The problem was discussed on Monday between the Iraqi PM Al-Maliki and the president of Kurdish descent, Jalal Talabani. De latter had been angry about the way the PM had imposed the Tigris Operation on the Kurds, and had only recently returned to Baghdad after staying away in protest. The talks did not go well, as Al-Maliki did not want to recall the Iraqi troops that are part of the Tigris Operation. Iraq's two leading politicians did not even shake hands when they split up - which is almost unheard of in the Iraqi culture that is one of honor, pride and hospitality.

Since he became president of Iraq in 2006, Talabani has tried to be the one to end conflict and strife, especially when this touches the Kurds. He has made a point of being above the parties, which for many Kurds meant that he had chosen Iraq above his own people. Many times I heard Kurds say that Talabani had forsaken them and became Iraqi more than Kurdish.Yet without Talabani, the relations between Erbil and Baghdad would not only have been tense and bad at times, but the parties most certainly would have clashed in other ways than only with words.

When on Monday night Talabani had a stroke, many Kurds linked that to Al-Maliki's refusal to budge on the Tigris Operation. Al-Maliki visited Talabani in hospital the next morning, where the Kurdish governor of the disputed city of Kirkuk, the Kurdish/American surgeon Nasjmadin Kareem heads the medical team.

The critical health situation of the president was reason for two Iraqi TV-stations to report on Tuesday afternoon that he had died. Even though Talabani had given the nation many scares before - he had a heart operation in 2008 - never before did Iraqi media declare him dead. The Kurdish parties hastened to deny it, and after stabilizing the situation Talabani was flown to Germany for further treatment.

Yet at the same time, the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki played another card. On Wednesday ten of the body guards of Finance Minister Rafia Al-Essawi were arrested  for taking part in terrorist attacks. Talabani was not there to protest, as he did when the same happened to his deputy Al-Hashemi a year ago.

At a news conference, Al-Essawi said "militia forces" had raided the Finance ministry, his office and home in "an illegal action", reports the BBC. "They arrested all the employees and guards," he said. "Is this the behaviour of a government, or the work of gangs?"

According to the PM's office the arrest of the body guards was done after investigation by and under orders of the Ministry of Justice. Yet Al-Essawi says the action involved not only the body guards but at least a hundred members of his staff. ,,Does Maliki want me to believe that he had no idea about this?” he says. Finance minister has secured a safe place in the house of the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, remembering what happened to Al-Hashemi. After his body guards were picked up on the same charges, they were also said to have confessed - as is reported about at least one of Al-Essawi's - Al-Hashemi fled to Kurdistan and then to Turkey. In September he was convicted of terrorism and received a death sentence in absentia.

Picture: Al-Essawi (middle) with Al Maliki (right)

Both Al-Essawi and Al-Hashemi are important politicians of the opposition party Al-Iraqia that came out as the biggest during the last elections but did not get the power, and are prominent Sunni politicians. President Talabani protected Al-Hashemi, by inviting him to his guest house in Sulaymanya. Now he is not there.

Could it be that the charges against the two are correct? Sure thing is that their bodyguards might not have a clean past. And even if for Al-Hashemi's doubts have been aired: Al-Essawi used to work as a medical doctor in Falluja, during the fights there with the American army. The Americans have since investigated him and found him honest and clean.

It looks like Al-Maliki is getting ready for the provincial elections in April, by getting rid of those criticizing him. And this could be the start of a very interesting period. Because already once before the Kurds and the Sunni parties linked hands to start a vote of non-confidence in the Iraqi parliament against the Prime Minister. They failed, because Talabani did not want to support them. If Talabani recovers, he might just have changed his mind. Surely the Iraqi PM does not count on the president to get well again soon.  

Tales that will be continued...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Too many hotels do not serve the guests

Two new hotels closed in the past weeks in Erbil. Perhaps that does not seem very big news, but it is the outcome of an interesting trend. A trend that has nothing to do with business plans and market research, only with spending money and the wish to get rich fast.

When I settled in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008, there were perhaps a dozen hotels in the capital Erbil and a litte less in Sulaymaniya and Duhok. These were not enough to receive all the visitors from the rest of Iraq coming for holidays during the religious Eid festival and the Kurdish new year Nowroz. That was never a problem in the past. When the weather was fine, people would camp in the parks, or private houses would open their doors for the guests.

Since Kurdistan became a state within the Iraqi federation, tourism has been on a magic word. Get tourists in and get rich, was the idea. Rich foreigners would want to come and spend their money, and they need a hotel to stay. And at the same time, foreign businessmen started arriving to work with oil companies and other international companies.

After 2007, the building of new hotels started. Mainly in the 3 star category, but since then also three 5 star hotels have opened in Erbil and recently one in Sulaymaniya. The capital was the first with a Rotana and a Divan Hotel, as most of the foreign businesses and the diplomatic services are based here. Over the years, more than 200 hotels have been built, and in the small town of Ainkawa twelve with more under construction. Some people suggest that most of the new hotels are paid with money earned in illegal trade or other illegal activities. (Foto Rudaw)

The fact that many of the hotels were built by investors and then rented out to someone who wanted to furnish and manage it, is part of the problem. The rents are far too high for the hotels to be able to make profit.

All these hotels offer a total of, so I calculated, some 16.000 beds. That is far more than the market needs. They might fill up during the religious and new year holidays, but otherwise there is never enough guests for all those beds. Businessmen take the top end of the market, or rent an apartment or house that also serves as their office.

Because of the competition, prices went down. If you want to attract guests and compete, that seemed the easiest way. Competing by quality was not an option, as there is not enough well trained staff for all these hotels. But by decreasing the price, it became even harder for hotels to break even and to remain in business. Some managed by renting out rooms as office space, others just cut down the cost and thus cut down on service. Many of the 3 star hotels are so badly managed and offer such lousy services that guests will not return.

At the same time the cost of the electricity went up, with now almost 24 hours a day being covered by 'raisy', government electricity. The government increased the price quite a bit over the past years. In Erbil also labour costs increased as a consequence of the competition, although with Syrian refugees since the summer coming in and begging for jobs the salaries have come down a little again.

Nobody has really profited from the boom in hotel building. Those who thought to get rich, might perhaps if they were lucky have been able to get the first years rent. But the majority of hotel owners are suffering. And after the initial decrease of the price, the guests are no longer profiting either. Who wants the choice between bad and worse, in a system of hotel qualifications that cannot be trusted - because there is no guarantee that the 3 stars that were given at the opening are really still applicable for many of the newer hotels.

The hotel association begged the authorities to put a stop to the building, having predicted the problems already years ago. It is the hotel managers that know the market best, so they could see that apart from those few holidays when Baghdadi's and Basroui's fled to Kurdistan for a few days they would never be able to fill all those beds. Yet another problem is, that those guests mostly look for the cheapest accommodation, so their presence does only affect part of the many hotels.

But the authorities did not act, probably thinking that in this new capitalist system the market should do the work. Probably knowing that some of the hotels would collapse, and thinking this is the risk the investors were taking. Yet if the authorities had taken their role as the regulator seriously, they could have prevented the disaster - because there surely are more closures under way. Regulating the amount of hotels built by matching it to market expectancy would have made all the difference to the investors who are now losing, the managers who try to keep hotels running on a shoe string and staff that is sacked because of lack of income.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Build this nation in the hearts of the Kurds

,,Which do you like better, Erbil or Sulaymaniya'', asks the taxi driver in Kurdish. I sigh, as I am so tired of this question that does not seem have a really good answer. Today I chose the 'I like Amsterdam best' from the list of possible answers not showing preference to one city over the other.

It happens everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan, that people - and not only taxi drivers even though they seem to have the most hits - ask you to choose between the two main Kurdish cities. In Erbil you are supposed to say you prefer Hawler (its name in Kurdish), just as in Sulaymaniya they expect you to prefer their own city.

What is the use? Erbil is a village that grew into a city with mundane sides for the many foreigners that settled in the past 3 years but with a conservative and religious nucleus. It lies on a plain, and has the extreme heat in the summer (up to 50 degrees C) and the cold in the winter. The government, the ministries and the parliament are housed here, and it is the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It has also become the trading heart of the whole of Iraq, and the place with the most expats.

Sulaymaniya has just been declared the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan - confirming what in fact has been the reality over the past years. Suli or Sulee - the name started to be used by the Americans and taken over more and more by the Slemani's - is a busy university town surrounded by mountains and for that reason always about 5 degrees cooler than Erbil, which has survived the influx of conservative villagers during the Anfal operation and is considered the most open minded of the Kurdish cities.

They both have their own appeal, yet Kurds feel you should prefer one over the other. And that is not because they are interested in the opinion of a foreigner - actually they are not - it is because the reference shows political preference. Those who like Suli are with PUK, those for Hawler with KDP.

Yet are we not supposed to be in the process of nation building in Iraqi Kurdistan? Since 2006 the Kurds have one capital, one parliament, one government. And yet, at the same time, the sense of nationality is that of the towns where people originate from. The pride of the people is for their own city. Not many people travel around a lot - I find that I know more of Iraqi Kurdistan than many of the people around me. And I even have friends in Suli who try very hard not to travel to Erbil. So what they know, is what they like.

This local nationalism even shows in the jokes. Slemani's have jokes about the Hawleri's - often about their stupidity - Hawleri's joke about Slemani women all being in charge and bullying their poor husbands.

This whole thing is getting odder since the KDP and the PUK formed a government together - trying to leave behind the animosities of the past, trying to wipe out the memories of the civil war in the nineties. And yet that is probably why this competition is still so alive: those memories cannot be wiped out just like that. To change Iraqi Kurdistan into one nation, instead of a number of town states, the painful past has to be addressed first.

To make the nation work, people have to come to terms with the past that divided them - and still does because the wounds never really healed. What is needed foremost is to discuss what happened, how it happened, and that it will never happen again.That the dead and the missing are dear to both sides. Closure is needed for those families that still have loved ones missing since the war, so the animosity against the party that was responsible can finally start to diminish. People need to feel sure that nobody will again get help from outside against the other, that the common Kurdish identity is always going to be stronger than the political arguments.

And the Kurds have to learn more about the country outside their home towns. They should be stimulated to travel around, and not only for a picnic but also to see the relics of the past and the beauty of the Kurdistan they hardly know. They should be stimulated to feel proud of all that, and not only of their own city.

Only then, can the building of the nation really start. Because a nation is not only in the land, in the politics, it is also very much in the hearts and the minds of the people.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Stop the mutilation of women

,,I call on mothers and sisters to help stop the mutilation of women.'' That was the very modest way Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani referred to FGM, or female genital mutilation, at the opening of the Campaign to Eliminate Violence against Women, on November 25 in Erbil.

Yet FGM is one of the subjects covered in the campaign that really needs attention. Foreign speakers, like the Consul General of the US  and the British Consul in Erbil mentioned it, but none of the Kurdish speakers touched on the subject, not even the female ones. It seems it is a taboo that cannot even be covered in speech. And even worse, in the published speech of the PM, this sentence is no-where to be found.

Did the translator during the opening hear something wrong, did I hear something that was not said? I look at my notes and it is clearly there. So the speech was edited, and who-ever did that took this out.

And yet I loved Barzani for the fact that he touched on the subject, however modestly, that women are behind FGM. Mothers, grandmothers and sisters take care little girls are circumcised, as they think Islam asks of them. And they want to make sure they are 'clean' and will be able to marry. Do men ask for it, I wondered many times. As far as I understand, many husbands do not even know their wives were mutilated. And I also know of husbands who are very unhappy to have a wife who was circumcised and therefore not able to enjoy sex.

Figures that have been published in the past couple of years show that in some areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, up to 90 percent of the women are circumcised (more information and figures here). Awareness campaigns by NGO's and some media probably have had some effect, but not enough. So in the law to eliminate violence against women that was adopted by a unanimous Kurdish parliament last year, FGM was also prohibited.

But while Prime Minister Barzani could announce the opening of special police stations and shelters to fight domestic violence, it is much more difficult to find ways to fight FGM. It involves women who think they are doing the right thing to their daughters, it involves midwives who make an income circumcising women, and it involves a taboo subject.

Compared to that, fighting domestic violence is a simple case. And one that can be communicated easily, as well. Let me take a few quotes from Barzani's speech, that say it all. ,,We know that violence against women is a serious threat to democracy. No system can call itself democratic unless it provides equality and justice. I am sure that you agree with me that violence against women is a terrible expression of inequality and injustice. At the Kurdistan Regional Government, we are determined to protect women’s rights and promote equality of opportunity.''

Dear Mister Prime Minister, this is noted and I am sure Kurdish women will take you up on this. Another quote needs to be noted too: ,,During our liberation struggle and while most of us were Peshmergas (freedom fighters), the role of women was witnessed in political activities, as freedom fighters and as family leaders, especially during the displacement and exodus. Thousands of girls and boys in today’s Kurdistan owe their upbringing to the perseverance and resistance of Kurdistan’s mothers who were able to resist the Anfal campaigns. Kurdish men who themselves experienced such atrocities should be ashamed to oppress women and practice violence against them.''

The issue is far more complicated then could be covered by the speeches during the opening day. Much of the domestic violence in Iraq is related to the trauma's of the war. Men who did not seek help to deal with these trauma's often react violently to their spouse. Any country with war veterans knows this. So in any campaign against domestic violence, some attention should be given to psychological help for the many victims of the traumatic stress syndrome in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It is good that the prime minister also  spoke out clearly against honour killing too: ,,There is no honour in murder. It is with this conviction in mind that we condemn the practice of honour crimes.'' And he urged religious scholars to participate in the national campaign. ,,Islam doesn’t permit honour killings. In fact, suicide is forbidden in Islam. I reiterate my respect to Islamic scholars, who indeed played an important role in the process of reforming the law, and urge them to continue in their positive efforts''.

These religious leaders, who were seated in the front of the hall, very recognizable in their toga's and religious hats, should also play a role in fighting FGM. They should make very clear that Islam does not ask for it, and that the prophet would not have liked it (as he liked women!). Because people in the villages and badly educated communities where FGM happens most tend to listen to their imams, it would be good to focus any campaign against FGM also on them - as NGO's have been doing.

Kurdistan is slowly but surely becoming more modern. Yet the changing of the minds does not follow the pace of the building of roads and malls, and extra attention is needed. ,,We will not be safe unless all women in Kurdistan feel secure. Women should feel that government, police and courts are there to provide them with security, justice and protection'', said the Kurdish prime minister.

That means end all kind of violence against women. And that means not only the honour killing and the domestic violence, but definitely also the mutilation of women. And that means more work needs to be done to find ways to implicate the law on Violence against Women, especially when it comes to FGM. Because it is all about respecting each other and living at peace with each other, at home and elsewhere.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The fear underneath

The threat is always there, here in Iraqi Kurdistan. The threat of violence and war, struggle and strife. Yet some times it is more apparent than usually. Then people take their savings from the bank, the check points work more strictly, the media talk about hardly anything else anymore and politicians are out of reach because they are too busy solving the issue.

That is what is happening at the moment, with the tension that has grown over the Dijla Force, the military operation started by the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki in three provinces that border the Kurdistan Region. This covers also the so-called disputed areas, which Kurds feel should be part of their region, like Kirkuk, Mahmour, Khanaqin.

This issue of the disputed areas was supposed to have been solved under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. A census and a referendum should have taken place long ago to decide who is in charge in those areas. In the mean time, the Kurds have gained the administrative power and are guarding the safety, making the disputed areas a relatively safe place to be.

Yet while the Iraqi president (and Kurdish leader) Talabani was in Germany for medical treatment, and against his earlier requests not to, Al-Maliki has created an Operation Command in Kirkuk, to 'fill the gaps in the safety'  between the local police and the Kurdish security forces, so he says.

The Dijla (Tigris) Force has enraged and frightened the Kurds, who still remember well how their people were treated by Saddam's army in the eighties and nineties. I saw the Iraqi army move around in their vehicles in the areas just outside of the KRG, and I do not have problems imagining that this creates fear. At the same time it should be noted that Al-Maliki has the right to send troops to those areas, as they are officially still with the Baghdad government. But the Iraqi PM knew he was treading on dangerous soil.

It is the memory of what happened and the fear that it will again, that has made the Kurds hang on to their own fighters, the Peshmerga, even though the force was supposed to have become part of the Iraqi army. They have learned not to trust Baghdad, and even though now the Kurds have their own federate state inside Iraq and have seats in the federal parliament and ministers in its government, the trust still is minimal and easily lost. So it was the Peshmerga that was called in to counter the Iraqi army; facing it in the disputed areas to make sure it does not cross the borders into areas under Kurdish rule.

The media in Kurdistan are playing an important role in this sentiment. They report on hardly anything else, quote politicians calling it a dangerous development, and create an atmosphere of crisis. And suddenly the normal life sort of stops in Kurdistan. I heard of people who took their money out of the bank, fearing they could not if the war started. I try to have appointments with politicians but am told they are too busy with this issue. And the media show me, meeting after meeting, of politicians who discuss and then come out with a statement against the Dijla Force. Taxi drivers and others talk of the threat of war.

The only positive thing that has come out so far, is that the Kurdistan Parliament has found a consensus on the subject. Politicians in this country behave often as if they are each others' worse enemies, but considering the Dijla Force the parliament came out with a unanimous condemnation, uniting for once both the government and the opposition.

After a deadly incident happened involving Iraqi soldiers and police and civilians, the Kurds also had the ear of the Americans. Vice-president Biden chose an Arabic magazine to speak out against the force, and threatened to put the disputed areas under American military rule if the issue is not solved.

Since then, Al-Maliki has offered to put the force under a joint command, and he promised to send his vice-PM to Kurdistan to discuss the matter. That should have released some tension. Yet for civilians, nothing has changed. Is it safe to buy a new car? Why clean up the outside of your house if it could be war any moment? Why build a new house if it might get damaged by the military?

Those same people were saying very recently: let's buy a new car, and a new sitting room, and a bed room, because we do not know how much longer we will be able to enjoy our money in peace. I hardly know any place where there are so many car sales and so many furniture shops as in Iraqi Kurdistan. Consumption to ward off the fear, to hide the insecurity about the future.

Will we keep our own Kurdish state? Will the tensions with Baghdad lead to fighting? Will the fighting from Syria spill over? Will the animosity between the Kurdish politicians again lead to war, like in the nineties? Questions in the back of the minds of many people in Kurdistan. It only takes some movements and words of politicians to bring it out again.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Kurdistan has stamps, so it exists

On my desk are two stamps. One for Kurdistan, one for Iraq. What is so special about them? Well - many things. First of all, the fact that they are on my desk.

In the beginning of my stay in Iraqi Kurdistan, one morning post from Holland landed on my desk. To my big surprise, because I did not think Iraq had a working postal service. The envelop contained an invitation, of which the date already had past some time ago. When I took a good look at the envelop, I found it had been posted about a month earlier, the address had been translated into Arabic and it had been stamped by Iraqi post.

Since then, occasionally a man with a clipboard would come into the office delivering post that had been sent from Europe, making us sign for the delivery. And without exception these letters would have been posted about a month earlier.

I assumed the postal system was working only in one direction - into Iraq. But then a traveler from the Netherlands took it upon himself to find Iraqi stamps. And in this search he also found a post office in Sulayamniya, that was also sending mail. How to send mail from outside the post office remained unclear, as there are no postboxes on the streets.

Not very journalistically I had assumed that the postal system was not working, as in this day and age of internet Iraq had made the same jump forward that it also has in other fields. For instance: no cable internet here - when I arrived first in 2003 I found that most internet was based on a satellite connection. When it snowed in Germany, we would have no internet in Iraqi Kurdistan - but after opening up in 2003 the area went straight for the newer solutions on the market for internet. Wireless was also normal, where in many countries you still had to hook up the computer with a wire to the network.

Yet I now realize my reasoning was not too solid, as until recently many Iraqi's hardly had an email address or hardly took the time to see what was sent to them that way. Only since the protests of 2011 Facebook has got a big following in Iraq - and mainly amongst the young.

Another reason to not really take any notice of the postal system was the fact that there are many alternatives to send post to and from Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish companies in the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain have for years been sending goods to and from Kurdistan, for an euro per kilo. And since a couple of years also international transporters like DHL are active in Kurdistan.

This alternative system is also working on the transfer of money. In the beginning (2008 mainly) I had to get money transferred from Europe by person by plane, or by Western Union.That system still works, but  now the Iraqi and Kurdish banks also transfer money from outside the country. They are expensive, as banks in this country charge for everything - some of them even for keeping money on your account without moving it.

Next to the banks there is another, informal system. Bring the amount of money you want to transfer to a special office in the Netherlands, and without the money actually being transferred, even the same day you can collect the same amount from an office in Kurdistan.

Back to the stamps. How cheap they are: 250 and 500 dinar, which is not even 25 and 50 dollars cents. Who would be able to send mail for such a small an amount in the West?

What is  really special is that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has its own stamps. And that they are sold next to the Iraqi ones. For all those that say or write to me: Kurdistan does not exist, now you see it does. Look at the side of this stamp. The proof is in the eating of the pudding: Kurdistan has its own stamps, so it exists. And so does postal service in Iraq. I apologize to all I have been informing incorrectly. But please do not send me any mail that way. It takes too long to reach me...

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Come, but don't stay

,,Your government wants to keep us out. That is the only reason why you are organizing this briefing.'' We are in the final stages of a workshop for journalists in Duhok, about the 'Economics of (illegal) immigration', when one of the participants, who is eager to leave, verbally lashes out. It seems all the information offered during the day is lost on him.

For months, I've been trying with my team to brief journalists about the sometimes dramatic results of illegal immigration. Because even though Iraqi Kurdistan is booming, young people still pay as much as 20.000 dollars to a human smuggler or a Schengen visa to get into Europe. Why? Because many Kurds who emigrated make it seem like the West is the paradise, the place to be. But if you look at realities, it often is far more attractive for young Kurds to stay in their own country.

For one, salaries are now as high in Kurdistan as in the West, and the oil money flowing in allows the Iraqi government not to tax those salaries. So for many people the economic situation now is as good here as in the West, or even better. Even the jobs they may find are better, as many Kurds are on the lowest ranks of the job ladder in the West, washing dishes, cleaning, and working on the roads.

The 20.000 dollars spent on a Schengen visa and a smuggler also have to come from somewhere. Families borrow it, and then are left with a big amount of money to repay to lenders demanding a fast return. In the past, it has landed relatively rich families in poverty; as the breadwinner that went to Europe is not allowed to work there while his asylum application is being processed and cannot send money home. And with most asylum seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan now being denied asylum, there is no way the money can be paid back from an income earned in the West.

And the 20.000 dollars will buy you a taxi in Kurdistan, which is a very good source of income in a country  without public transport. The money would help towards the building of a house, as most people want to own their home. It can be used in many positive ways to improve the life of an entire  family, while when it is used to get to Europe the chances are huge that it is lost because the person is send back.

Those that do find ways to stay - which is getting more and more difficult and often means an illegal stay - have to do work they would never want to do in their own country. Do they realize this when they set off? Probably not, as the Kurds they know have told them they had no problem in finding a management job - when in reality they are washing dishes. It seems a waste of time for those that are talented.

At the same time, the loss of young, educated Kurds going to the West also means a brain drain for Iraqi Kurdistan. Why educate the youth if they leave and use the knowledge elsewhere? It is a loss of money and energy. But what does the government do to keep her talented youth in the country? Is there a policy?

The project to help young Kurdish graduates to conduct a masters study in the West therefore is a good start. In that way, young people get the chance to see the realities over there, and at the same time gather knowledge that is useful for their future and that of their country.

I think that one of the reasons why young people keep sneaking to the West, is the fact that the gates are closed. It is very hard to get a visa, which makes it even more attractive - like everything that is forbidden. If they would be able to travel to Europe for a holiday, take a good look and come back again, I am pretty sure the human trafickers would soon be out of work here.

But this is a circle: because young people try to sneak in, the European governments make the visa regulations as tight as possible, and because of the closed doors people do sneak in...

Young Kurds also want to travel the world, just like I have done with my Dutch passport and many others in Europe with me. They want to see all those places they know from TV. They want that so much, that they will get themselves smuggled in, go through a horrible procedure and wait for years in a bad situation until they get the passport that makes it possible to travel the world. And then they return to their home country - I see them return, one after the other, and especially now the recession has made the situation even more difficult in Europe. But when they return, they have the passport that opens the doors of the world for them, so they can leave again, if the situation in Iraq changes again.

When you talk to young Kurds about the reasons behind their urge to leave, they often mention the strong social control in Kurdistan. It is partly about sex and the possibility to have it outside marriage, but not only. It is also about the way family members are in charge of each other's lives, preventing people from doing what they want or pressuring them into doing something they do not want - like a marriage to a person they hardly know.

So as far as I can see, there are a few things that can stimulate young Iraqi's to not come to Europe. Information about the hardships and the results for their families left behind, is one. Master studies in Europe, is two. And easier visa regulations that allow them to travel the world, is a very important third one.

Perhaps the angry journalist in that briefing in Duhok was partly right. Our governments do want to keep the Kurds out - as asylum seekers and economical refugees. But if they just want to take a look, and return after that without wanting to make use of the social system in Europe (the main worry of many, not only right wing voters in Europe), they are welcome. Come and see - but don't stay. And if you do want to stay, don't come.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Clean water, no cholera!

Cholera. That is not something one associates with modernity. Yet it has hit Kurdistan badly, and the authorities do not seem to have an answer to the problem.

It is the water from the lake of Dukan, the authorities say, that caused the first major outbreak of cholera in Sulaymaniya since 2007. Some 202 cases of the disease have been recorded in the city, and 1800 cases of vomiting and diarrhea that ended in  hospital. Four people are said to have died.

Every summer the threat of cholera hangs over Sulaymaniya. After the earlier outbreaks, restaurants were told by the authorities no longer to serve jugs of water with the meals, but only bottled water. The sales of water in plastic bottles went up enormously from that moment. It helped somewhat, but every year with the heat the cholera returns. This year is just exceptionally bad, and it seems to have taken the health authorities by surprise. The Health Ministry at the beginning just ignored it, probably hoping it would die down as it did before. And after twelve days of daily new cases, the parliament met to discuss the problems.

The outcomes of those deliberations were the order not to drink the water from the tap, and to keep away from vegetables. As we say in Holland: only after the calf has drowned, the well is closed over.

The authorities have been warned before, and again and again, of the danger of cholera - as it returns every year in the summer. The cause is complicated, and part of a bigger problem. The Kurdish cities are growing fast, and because of the speed of the growth and the lack of vision of those responsible, they do not have a good sewage system nor a good water treatment system. Drinking water comes from the lakes, which also serve as the exit of the sewage - so no wonder the cholera bacteria was found in Dukan lake. This is the question of the chicken and the egg, which was first?

Another cause of the problem are the wells that people - and the government - are using. I know that many of the deep wells in Sulaymaniya have been extremely low since the end of spring. Reason: the city uses far more water than it has, and far more than the winter rains allow it to. And the reason for that I have covered before: people are not careful with water. The Kurds are big users, with almost 800 liters per day per person. And up till now very little is being done to change this.

On top of that is the policy to 'greenify' the motorways in the cities. It is great to have plants and trees in the middle and at the sides of the main roads - but all the green needs water. And if plants are chosen that are not from the region, and only thrive with a lot of water, that also adds to the problems.

The low level of the wells means that the little water left in the bottom may well be polluted.And the wells that people dug themselves may well be polluted too by the sewage when it rains. Every evening the Kurdish capital Erbil stinks of sewage - because there is no good sewage system. In many areas there is even none, with houses just using underground tanks for their waste water, that overflow - thus causing the stench, and posing a threat to national health.

In Sulaymaniya, every year when the rains start, the water from the taps show a muddy color. It looks like the rain is getting into the water system, which of course makes the water no longer fit for drinking.

Every summer, in the lake of Darbandikhan fish die mysteriously. The media are keen to report about poisons that are used, sabotage or otherwise. But what really happens is that the lake is so full of the shit  - excusez le mot - of Sulaymaniya that the water has too little oxygen for the fish to survive.
Photo Kurdish Globe

Then: the vegetables. Yes, I hear from farmers that because of the lack of clean water, a mixture with waste water is used to water the crops. But when you clean vegetables well with clean water and dry them before cutting and eating, or cook them in boiling water, I do not see why the bacteria would still be a threat.

The cause of cholera is a bigger one than drinking water and vegetables. It is a government that is allowing cities to grow without taking into consideration that water management is needed. It cannot be that in a country as rich on oil and with a booming economy as Kurdistan that wants to be the shining example of the region, there is no vision or money or planning to make sure its citizens have clean water.

The right to clean water is a human right. It is a necessity, as the cholera outbreak has shown. And it definitely is not a luxury. It needs politicians that get their priorities right. If the water problem is not tackled soon, Kurdistan will become unlivable. It has no seawater that it can desalinate. It is depending on the rain and snow of the winter for the flow if its rivers and the level of its deep wells. It needs to manage water, to clean waste water, to reuse water. It needs action. And soon!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Kings on double jobs

,,You work as an English teacher?'' The taxi driver nodded while he handed me the change of my 5000 dinars. ,,At the university'', he said. ,,Why would someone with your background want to drive a taxi?'' The middle aged driver smiled a bitter little smile. ,,I cannot live from the salary they pay me.Seven hundred dollars just is not enough.''

This is the story of Kurdistan. Here very many people have double jobs. Before the teacher I met a driver who did his taxi rides after his work as an engineer at the electricity department of the local government. Again, that did not pay him enough to feed his family, so he told me. I know of policemen and security men who for the same reason drive a taxi after work.

That must generate a good income, because Kurdistan does not have any public transport. If you want to go van A to B, you step into a taxi. There are taxi's you hail in the streets, there are shared taxi's between the towns. Driving a taxi is thus a very common job, also because there are hardly any requirements. Just a license for the taxi, no exams or other tests are needed.

But it not only taxi's. I have had staff that worked with the government in the morning, and came to work for me afterwards. I even had a candidate for a job who thought he could do it easily next to his full-time job with a company. Kurds seem to think it is normal to have two jobs.

The government is the biggest employer in the country. Over 75 percent of all the jobs are with the Kurdistan government. Government jobs are popular. Because you do not have to work hard - often people are just waiting behind a desk for the day to end - and that day is over at 2 PM. But the main reason is that the government is the only one providing employees with a pension. Government employees can apply for a long leave - because there is not enough work for all - and still get the pension. For that reason people are eager to get a government job.

But that job often does not pay enough for a family to live off. With rising prices - especially housing is expensive, but in general the prices have been rising over the past months - people need another income. Not a completely different job - as that would cost them the pension. Just extra income.

A friend of mine wrote an article in a local, English language paper, the Kurdish Globe, where he wrote that 'it rains money in Kurdistan'. He found that these double jobs ended people with incomes of 2500-3500 dollars a month - in a country where income tax does not exist. He even found a school teacher who also ran a mini-market and made a salary of 4000 dollars a month. The main quote in his article is that people say 'they live as kings'.

Yet while people have double incomes, they occupy a government job that is needed for the younger generation. One of the reasons behind the unrest of last year was the lack of jobs for the young. After that the government added thousands of jobs - leading to the offices full of civil servants who talk and gossip together with an eye on the clock, or to civil servants who add another unneeded check to an already too long procedure.


Kurdistan is booming. Restaurants are full, car parks are filled with new cars, many Kurdish living rooms are  changed yearly, the bazaar and the malls are buzzing. Yet many young people do not find work, many farmers and villagers cannot keep up with the financial boom.

Why keep government jobs that are not functional? Why not just make a national pension and use some of the money saved from the scrapping of jobs to create a stronger private sector? Why not give teachers, engineers and others that the government needs to keep a more realistic income and realistic working hours? And make sure farmers and villagers get paid well for an agricultural production, in stead of importing all the fruit and vegetables from outside?

The main reasons I can see is that governing parties need the jobs to keep their voters satisfied and tied to them, and that Iraq has a history as a socialist country. But that is an unpopular past - it is the story of the Baath regime. Another reason is the income from the oil - it does not force governments to make difficult decisions, even if a healthy fabric of the country needs them.

These are no easy decisions. But even before that, politicians need the courage to start the discussion. Because the boom of today is bound to end some day - perhaps even soon. Then all those thousands of extra civil servants will be sent home - without the backup of a healthy private sector and a thriving agriculture. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Wasting water as a national sport

The girl that is hosing down the street stops me from taking a picture of her. Because she does not want to be caught wasting water - or because she is afraid the picture might be misused? I am afraid it is because of the latter, as people in Iraq do not see wasting water as a crime. It's more of a national sport.

Wherever you go, what ever time of the day, you will find people in Iraq pouring water onto the streets. I suppose they see it as cleaning, getting rid of the dust. They stand and watch the water, chase some dirt, look around the street, and at the same time make sure the street is nice and wet. It is a favourite pastime for all; men in uniform or pyjama's, women wearing aprons or in a house dress and even children. During the summer, the winter and even after the rain, to chase away the mud.

I was visiting a friend for a diner on his roof, when below us late at night one after another the neighbours came out with their hoses and started washing the streets. ,,The government knows this area is wasting water'', the friend told me. ,,Because of that, they only turn the water on late at night. Even so, after the water tanks are full again, everybody starts watering the street.''

Apart from the problem that they are emptying their water tanks - do they realize how much water they are wasting, and do they know that this is causing problems? Do they realize Kurdistan is using 770 liter water a day per person, where my country only uses 125 liters? I think most people are ignorant of this. Yet when you tell them they are wasting precious drinking water, they will not stop. If you ask cleaning ladies not to hose down the patio but use a bucket, they refuse.

I am from a country where water falls from the sky far too often, and yet I have been brought up with the knowledge that it takes a lot of work and money to clean water and make it suitable for drinking. Turn off the tap when you brush your teeth! Do not leave the water running! It's been so ingrained into my system, that I cringe inside when I see people walk away from a running tap.

Water is life. We all know, but in Iraq the message that goes with this knowledge has somehow got lost. Life is precious, so take care of it. And yet, in Iraq water is getting scarce. Because of dam projects in Turkey, Iran and Syria in the rivers that feed the Iraqi rivers (not only the main ones, Euphrates and Tigris, but also smaller ones) the water levels are much lower than years ago. Some winters the rains help to fill up the lakes and the rivers, but when this is insufficient the problems are huge.

Yet people are using water as if there are no problems at all. Municipalities plant greenery at the motorways and design parks for the families. All this uses tons of water, as often plants are chosen that do not originate from the region and need a lot of water. The water consumption in the summer is so high, that the deep wells that fill up during the winter dry up almost completely.

A couple years ago a Swedish organisation worked on one area near Erbil to put in water meters and educate the people about water scarcity. The water usage went down immediately. But one project is not enough. To make a real change, a  lot of education is needed for all Iraqi's from all ages - starting at the schools, but also for grown-ups.

In Duhok the authorities some time ago started prohibiting the washing of cars with a hose. That was a start, but the measure was not taken over by other authorities in Kurdistan, probably because it is difficult to implement. You need a very active police to check and persecute. 

So I was happy to see last month on AKnews that ,,a campaign for warning the citizens against the consequences of wasting water and legal punishments for doing so will be launched soon in the Kurdistan Region.Water is a national wealth and it should not be protected, said Sirwan Baban,  the minister of Agriculture and Water Resources.''

,,Baban said for better controlling the waste of water by the citizens, the Ministry will assign water consumption calculators at houses soon.''

,,As for the issue of lack of water in Kurdistan and the threats of drying out the underground water, the minister said from now on the Ministry plans for the construction of more dams and for putting a limit to the artesian wells which deplete the underground water. 13 projects of constructing big and small dams are now under way and plans for constructing 40 more are being laid, according to Baban.''

Interesting news. Now, I do not want to be only negative. The campaign and the water meters are a big step forward, punishment for wasting water too. But the plan to solve the problem by making more dams, is perhaps a bit short sighted. Because what happens to the river behind the dam, in the years that it fills? They will dry up. The water that is used to fill a lake, cannot be used for agriculture or drinking water. Do dams really solve water problems, or do they just create other problems elsewhere? And how about the land that will be flooded - agricultural land, historical land...? Many questions that need to be answered before dam projects can be started.

Let's start with the campaign, to make the people in Iraq realize how precious water is. To make them aware of the consequences of their behaviour, in the long run, for the future of Iraq. And let the government aim for a clear result: for instance to bring down the water consumption to a more acceptable level of, say, half of what it is now. Let's fight this disastrous national sport of wasting water!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Of bags of blood and health care tourism

'My mother was finally operated on in Iran', says my young Kurdish friend. 'And there were a lot of other Kurds in the same hospital for treatment'.

I need to return in this entry to the bad healthcare in Iraqi Kurdistan, as I have some new stories to share and some new insights. The mother of the friend I just mentioned had planned to have the operation done in Erbil. But when she arrived for the occasion, she was sent away because she did not bring the blood needed for the transfusion. Yet when she made the arrangements a short time before, the surgeon had said no blood was needed.

The family lost trust in the clinic and took the patient to Iran, where health care is better and she was operated on successfully. I am even told that the care is cheaper there. So it is not so strange that, even though Iran is suffering under a strict embargo, many Iraqi Kurds go there for medical treatment.

The issue of the blood is also an interesting one. The mother of another friend needed an urgent heart operation last week. Before she could be admitted, the family had to provide the clinic with five bags of blood of the right blood group. It took some organizing, but the family members donated the blood that was then used in the operation.

For westerners, this is a strange practice. We have blood banks, where blood is donated by volunteers and carefully screened for diseases. The blood is almost a hundred percent safe. What happens to this blood family members of the patients donate - is it screened as carefully? Is there enough time for that, if the operation, as in this case, is an urgent one?

There is another side to this story. The woman went to the local hospital with complaints a few weeks earlier. As she arrived there before the morning shift started, she was put on medication. Even though her arteries needed to be catheterized, she was refused the treatment because of the time of arrival. That time ruled out anything but a treatment with oral medication, after which she spent over a week at home with daily recurring small heart attacks until the family decided to take her to a clinic out of town to get the operation done.

Another recent story. A pregnant doctor from the West went for a check up on the baby and had an echo-cardiogram. In a waiting room full of patients, the secretary asked her when was the last day of her period, and had she ever miscarried. The whole room was listening, and so it also heard the girl before her answer that she had a miscarriage the day before. Private information, that is involuntarily shared with a group of people who can do with it what ever they like - which will be mainly gossiping.

When the pregnant doctor was led into the room for the echo, she found there were two other women already there. The doctor was unkind and impolite, and told her to keep her head still when she tried to steal a look at the monitor. Only when she told him she was a medical doctor herself, his behaviour changed. And while the others were sent away with the gel for the echo still on their stomachs, she was handed a Kleenex.

Now, after all these stories, I want to share with you a reaction that reached me about an earlier entry where I looked for the reasons behind the bad health care in Iraq, and put the blame partly with the doctors and partly with the system.

I  used to be a doctor in Iraq, I worked as an intern for almost 2 years but then had to flee the country and I live in the Netherlands now as an asylum seeker with a 5-years permit.
I completely agree with you about how bad the health system is, but I felt really offended when you blamed the doctors only and pictured the Iraqi doctor as a butcher who slays the patients for money with no mercy at all... 

Iraq is full of corruptions and doctors are humans and there is always a bad human and a good human, but like everything else in Iraq the bad one is in the power position. I met doctors (specialists) forced to work in a hospital (or that is what it should be) in a village 7 days a week living in a (sorry) dumpster called the doctor resident and getting humiliated every day if not by the patients, by the Department of Health.

Well you can't expect a human feeling betrayed, feeling he worked so hard his whole life just to be humiliated every day to give all he can and to keep updating himself. I would love if you would investigate - as a journalist - the life of a doctor in Iraq; a junior doctor and write an article about it. Only then you'll know what is going wrong in the health system of Iraq...

I understand what the doctor is saying, but still I do not agree with him. It can be very good for young doctors to get their first working experience in a local clinic. This is where they will have to learn, because at the Iraqi universities they hardly learned anything about diagnostics or treatment in a real situation. It might be hard not to be respected, but I am afraid when the young doctors are older, they do the same to the younger ones again. It is the system that needs to be changed. And that starts with not only allowing those with top grades to become doctors, but also those that show the necessary passion for the job.

Passionate doctors will want the best for their patients. And for that reason, they are polite, gentle and caring - not only when they find they are treating a colleague. They want to find more information about illnesses and new treatment, because they want their patients to recuperate. They want to improve themselves for the improvement of their patients.

I hope Iraq still has doctors like this, tucked away somewhere. But I doubt it, because of the many stories that I hear. It is high time for the medical practice and the authorities to sit down together, discuss and find ways to improve the situation. We do not want to continue the medical tourism to Iran, Turkey and even India. People who are ill, are entitled to be cared for as good as possible. With their family members at their bedside, and not in a strange country of which they hardly speak the language.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tourists and the Other Iraq

The camera's click. Dutch tourists line up to preserve the image of the Kurdish landscape for when they are back home. The bus is waiting to take them to the next stop, elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan.

After having organised two trips for small tourist groups from the Netherlands, I decided to guide the third tour myself, to see what the guests like and what is needed. It was an interesting adventure. Not only because I got to know a group of nine people quite well in seven days, and because I found the job of a tour leader is not an easy one, but also because it showed me my new country through the eyes of strangers.

When you read the guides the Kurdistan Ministry of Tourism prints, there must be lot of locations in Kurdistan that are interesting for tourists.But when you visit them, this is not really true. Tourists are in different categories. People getting away from the heat in the south have different interests then Westerners who come to discover a new, relatively unspoiled country.

So which subjects were discussed a lot in the group I showed around? The weather - because this September start is still a hot one. The sights - the many different mountains and their colours, the waterfalls and the nature. The bad shape of monuments. The lack of restaurants and hotels on the right spots. The impressive past that is still to be seen. One of my guests told me she had a nightmare after visiting the Red Prison in Sulaymaniya, as the former jail of Saddam's security service has been kept as it was, to give people a good idea of the suffering that went on there.

The bad shape of monuments is a problem the Kurdish authorities have to address. I was shocked on my preparation trip, to find the old gate at Amedi neglected and full of junk. How can you walk down over the broken stones, how can you expect tourists to see through the junk? Only historians who are interested in the Assyrian motives of the gate might do that. But the tourist group I had decided that Amedi was not really as interesting as I had promised. Mister Mayor, can you please do something about this...?

For the same reason I skipped part of the program. Why go to Qaskapan if the walk to the Kings Grave ends at the bottom of a rock that is hard to conquer for most people? Only because the authorities removed the wooden steps to prevent unmarried couples from having a good time in the cave?

And then the lack of restaurants and hotels at the right places. Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Duhok are so crowded with hotels that the owners can hardly survive the competition. Yet were are they in the countryside of Sulav and Amedi? And where is the little restaurant at the lake of Dukan or at Darbandigan? Tourists want to sit and watch with a coffee, tea, juice or even a meal. And the hotel at the Dukan Lake is so difficult to find it feels like a treasure hunt to go there.

Kurdistan wants more tourists. In both Sulaymaniya, Erbil and Duhok big family parks with Ferris wheels and other games are being built. Fun for the family. But that is not what tourists from the West expect to find. Of course, when the cable cars in Sulaymaniya go up to Azmar, that will be an attraction for them too. But they mainly want to discover the history of the country, and the feel of it. They want to enjoy the sights in a comfortable way. This is not about selling alcohol or opening nightclubs. This about realising that different tourists need different attractions.

The bowling halls, the skating rings, the cinema's - they may attract the visitors from inside Iraq, and perhaps also in the future from the region. But to attract visitors that also spend money, different attractions are needed. Historical sites needs to be kept and to be easily accessible. Places of beauty should also provide some possibility to stay and enjoy the sight. That could be a chaixana - tea house - but even a couple of benches are a good option.

The rocks that Kurdish artist Ismail Khayat repainted recently on the road between Koya and Erbil - his peace monument from the brother war - does deserve some benches. And it deserves some respect as well. It is unbearable that in election time the monument is filled with graffiti. The waterfall of Ahmadawa badly needs to be cleaned from plastic bottles and cans - and the be kept clean. Historical sights need sign posts. And another issue: guards at the checkpoints should stop checking the passports of the visitors, as if they are criminals or terrorists. They are your guests, they do not want to be hassled, they are on holiday, want to relax and only be treated as honoured guests.

And do you realise that Kurdistan has hardly any souvenirs, apart from the little painted pebbles Ismail Khayat is offering, or souvenir shops, apart from the shop of the Carpet Museum at the Erbil Citadel?

Of course, when the tourists come, they enjoy the famous Kurdish hospitality. They admire the sights, they love the mountains. But one or two of these groups are not enough to get the message across that Kurdistan is 'the other Iraq'. If just a few changes are made, and if a few people in the right places are aware of the economical and political impact of happy tourists going home with the right stories, then Kurdistan well really profit.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Make Kurdistan a better place for women

'If a woman cheats on her husband, she deserves to be killed', the young Kurd from a rich and influential family says. 'My wife can get a divorce, if she asks me. But if she cheats on me - I cannot accept that.'

We sit in a nice garden outside town, drinking a beer, eating salad and kebab. Like often in mixed company, the problem of honor killings has settled the mood between us, between men and women, and between Kurds and non-Kurds. Recently, a girl in the Kurdish town of Kalar has been killed by her brother, after she became pregnant by her other brother. Who's honor was in danger, you wonder. The case was bad enough for Kurdish women to get together and demonstrate against honor killings and violence against women. A novelty, because women in Kurdistan are hardly heard, and are hardly seen to protest in the streets.

The issue is not only discussed in the West, where Kurdish brothers hit the news as they kill their sisters, or fathers their daughters. Kurds are too often the subject in these news items. The problem finally has become an issue in Iraqi Kurdistan too, where modernity creeps in with the money earned and spent in this booming part of Iraq. In June of last year, the Kurdistan parliament agreed on an important law concerning women: one that punishes violence against women, and includes a prohibition on female genital mutilation FGM (in some regions of Iraq as many as 90 percent of the women get circumcised).

The problem that we all foresaw then, was that this law would need to be implemented, to be made to work. The police and the courts need to know what to do. How do you find the old women that circumcise young girls, how do you prevent them from doing what they consider as their job, how do you prove your case? What can you do when the mother agrees on the practice, as always is the case? Who will act when a woman is beaten up? Is the police making special teams to work on this issue?

No, I am not mixing up two subjects. I am covering here violence against women, and I consider the circumcision of young girls and women an act of violence against them.

The case of the girl in Kalar shows that a law alone is not enough. The parents of the girl, who are of course also the parents of the two young men involved, will not file a complaint. That makes persecuting the killer difficult. The fact that the young men will go unpunished does not at all set the right example.

Human Rights Watch reports that the law has not been enforced. 'The regional government has begun to run awareness campaigns, train judges, and issue orders to police on the articles of the law dealing with domestic violence. But it apparently has not taken similar steps to implement the FGM ban', says the human rights organization.

Let's see what else HRW says:
Several police officers told Human Rights Watch that their superiors had not given them any instructions or explanation of the ban on FGM. The head of an Interior Ministry directorate tasked with tracking violence against women confirmed to Human Rights Watch that no such instructions or explanation had yet been given.

The highest Muslim authority in Iraqi Kurdistan issued a fatwa in July 2010 saying that Islam does not require female genital mutilation. But after parliament passed the Family Violence Law, Mullah Ismael Sosaae, a religious leader, gave a Friday sermon in Erbil demanding that the KRG president, Massoud Barzani, refuse to sign it into law. Barzani did not sign it, but allowed the law to go into effect when it was published in the government’s Official Gazette (#132) on August 11, 2011. Critics in the Kurdish region say that this was an effort by Barzani to avoid confrontation with religious leaders like Sosaae while allowing the bill to become a law, but that this approach sent the message that those against the law could continue to undermine it. 

So here also, the wrong message was sent, it seems.

Members of parliament and civil society activists have criticized the government’s lack of action, and say the practice remains prevalent, particularly in areas such as Rania, Haji Awa, and Qalat Diza.

The areas that HRW mentions, are infamous for violence against women. Here the most honor killings take place, here the most girls are forced to set fire to themselves if the family feels the honor is violated. Is there a relation between this and FGM? I have not seen any reports on this subject, but I guess that when you feel that you can mutilate a girl of five, you will not treat a young woman in a much better way. What it all comes down to is respect, what it comes down to is agreeing that women have a right to their own (sex) life, that they are not the property of their fathers or husbands.

At the table in the dark garden, we implore the young and well-educated guy to think twice. We try to make him understand that change is needed, and that change will have to come from the men too. Is it true that men can only think of honor? Is it true that all men think honor is more important than life? 'No', he says, under pressure of a group of well spoken women at his table, 'there are modern men who do not agree to those practices.'

Well in that case, it is high time that those men speak out. That they make their voice heard, their opinion read, that honor killings are not of this time and no longer acceptable in Iraqi Kurdistan. That a life is too important, that a woman is not the property of a man, that honor is something out of the history books.

Modern men in Iraqi Kurdistan: stand up for your women. And at the same time, stand up for your country. After having fought so long and fiercely for a free Kurdistan, now it is time to consider how the outside world looks at you. And when it comes to honor killings and the way women are treated, the outside world thinks Kurdistan has got stuck in history and never moved out of the Middle Ages.

Prove them wrong, out there. Make Kurdistan a better place for women.